Coalitions in Action – Riverhead Community Awareness Program (CAP) – Responding to Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization

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“Medical marijuana legalization originally came to New York in 2015, and the legalization of adult-use cannabis came in March of 2021. The state left the law very broad, so that it was up to the municipalities to decide what they wanted it to look like in their communities,” explained Kelly Miloski, Community Prevention Specialist at Riverhead Community Awareness Program (CAP).

Municipalities in New York State had until the end of 2021 to decide if they wanted to opt-out of allowing retail outlets and on-site consumption lounges in their area. “Many of the towns in Long Island chose to opt-out, but when our town board was deciding, they sent out a survey to gauge the community’s perspective.”

“Since we are based in a tourist area, legalization was, unfortunately, seen as a new opportunity to generate money. We have seen a lot of breweries pop up in our town in the past five years, so they are always trying new things to generate revenue. This brings risks, as many of these are related to substances and could lead to substance misuse.”

“Based on the community’s response, the town decided not to opt-out, and adult-use cannabis was legalized here. Our Executive Director, Felicia Scocozza, and I went to the town board and presented on best practices for educating the community and raising awareness on the potential risks of marijuana use soon after. Our youth coalition felt very passionate about this, and in July of 2021, they also spoke with the town board. Ultimately, our combined efforts demonstrated to the board that this is a multifaceted issue, and we need to get everyone involved to make sure we go about it in the smartest and safest way.”

In response to these concerns, the town board formed a Marijuana Advisory Committee to represent all voices within the community. The first meeting was held in December, with plans to continue to meet monthly. The committee is comprised of representatives from law enforcement, businesses, civic organizations and the town attorney, to name a few. “I serve on the committee, but I represent all of our coalition members, and I make sure that their position is heard,” said Miloski.

“In our next coalition meeting, we plan to do an activity with our members where we will break out into groups, and each group will work on developing different strategies to address the local condition of marijuana policy surrounding adult cannabis use being limited in our community. I hope that I will be able to bring what they develop in that meeting back to the advisory committee and share the strategies that they come up with. It's important to them to be heard because the town board does value our expertise as it relates to substance use and misuse prevention.”

“So far, our main focus has been on zoning. The law is already strict in terms of where the retail outlets and onsite consumption lounges can be. They can't be within X amount of feet of schools, daycares, religious places of worship, etc., so we are currently working on mapping out our community.”

“We have also talked about hours of operation, and soon we’ll be discussing saturation and density, like, how many of these do we want in our community, and how close can they be to each other? A lot in regard to security and advertising is already in the law, but we also have to keep that into account.”

“We’re also considering what we want this to look like at public events. About five years ago, we worked with the town to develop its first alcohol policy for public events, which put guidelines into place. Now we've been discussing how we might apply this to marijuana use as well.”

Additionally, Riverhead CAP plans to implement other prevention strategies in anticipation of these sites opening in the next year. These include providing lock boxes for customers and including marijuana into their prescription drug disposal initiatives, like take-back days and medication drop boxes. The coalition will also be partnering with businesses to provide informational pamphlets to customers that will raise awareness about marijuana misuse among youth and proper storage. Their youth coalition also plans to write and record PSAs that will raise awareness about the dangers of marijuana use.

Several years ago, Riverhead CAP worked to develop a Marijuana Consensus paper with their coalition following an impactful training session at the Mid-Year Training Institute. “We participated in a really engaging activity that you can do with your coalition members. It starts by putting members into groups, and then they have to come up with a statement they agree on. They are given a statement like, ‘Chocolate ice cream is the best ice cream,’ and they all have to either agree with that statement or deny it, and then work within the group until they all agree on the statement. If they don’t all agree, they might change it to something like, ‘Chocolate ice cream is a dessert.’ That’s how the activity starts, and then we transferred it over to a topic like marijuana. That’s how we, as a coalition, ended up developing and writing our consensus paper.”

“When adult-use cannabis was legalized, we worked with the coalition to update that consensus paper, and going forward, we plan to review it on an annual basis. We did this because there are so many opinions surrounding marijuana, and we wanted to work with our coalition to get on the same page with talking points. And we all agree that marijuana is unsafe, and it's unhealthy for youth.”

“My biggest learning lesson is that it's really important to tackle issues like this in a realistic and agile approach. As a coalition, you want to make sure that your members are on the same page and working with you. As we know, the most effective way to create change is by working with all 12 sectors in our community. My takeaway is to work with your coalition members, develop a consensus paper where you solidify your viewpoints and talking points related to marijuana and utilize your resources.”

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